Vail Daily column: Weasels, snowshoe hare change wardrobe for spring
March 24, 2014
Spring time is approaching quickly here in the Eagle Valley, and with temperatures starting to reach the 50 degree mark, many residents are eager to bring out their shorts, T-shirts, and other summer apparel. We can also see that the snow is already melting rapidly, especially at lower elevations and on southern facing slopes which will be colored a muddy brown while they wait for their annual carpet of lush green foliage and colorful wildflowers to come in. With these changes in the weather, residents might begin to also notice some of our local wildlife altering their appearance in order to remain comfortable for spring.
March and April mark the time of year when weasels and snowshoe hares in our region will begin their spring molt, changing the color of their fur to coincide with the season. During the winter, these creatures typically sport a thick white coat to help blend into their environment and avoid becoming prey. More importantly, the white coat will keep them warmer compared to the brown which they will molt into for summer. White fur appears white because it lacks pigmentation, ultimately making for hollow hairs. These hollow hairs help trap air and retain body heat, creating a warm insulated layer around the animal. Their white fur coat is similar to humans putting on a down jacket; the down feathers trap air, which we heat up with our body heat.
As one might guess, these white coats are not as comfortable during summer months when the weather is hot and the environment contains little white for camouflaging. These animals will start to shed their coats this spring, just like us, looking for a cooler option. However, unlike humans, weasels and snowshoe hare use photoperiod as an indicator of seasonal change. When the days start to become longer, these animals sense the need for change, and that helps determine when molting will occur. Unfortunately, some years (like those where we get little snow) can be problematic for these creatures as their presented colors do not always match the current environment.
This summer, weasels and snowshoe hare will be seen sporting a luxurious brown light weight coat. Once again, camouflage is on their side as the brown dirt of summer provides a backdrop for the weasels to sneak up on prey, while the meeker hare simply sit still and hope they're not spotted. Both of these animals are dependent on their coloring to stay alive. Weasels are avid and fierce hunters, sneaking up on prey by slinking along, and then attacking with a ferocity that belies its small size. And while the snowshoe hare might share this unique ability to change color, that doesn't exempt it from the menu, as weasels are known to attack and dine on animals much larger than themselves.
This summer, as you exchange your down jacket for your tank tops and head out on your hikes and bike rides, keep your eyes open for those trendy weasels and snowshoe hare. These animals can both be hard to spot, as the weasel is mostly nocturnal and the snowshoe hare prefer the cooler hours at dawn and dusk, but catching a glimpse of either one can be a gratifying wildlife sighting.
Ben Mezger is a Naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center, and a Chef at Northside Kitchen. Ben has lived in the Valley for a year now, and enjoys fishing, hiking, camping, and snowboarding, amongst other outdoor activities.